There is nothing new about this. Fear has been a primary driver of human activity for a very, very long time. In fact I would say that humans are innately a fear-driven species.
I know this seems odd, because we think of ourselves as successful, the dominant species on Planet Earth with no natural predators left. And indeed we are - now. But we have not always been so.
We think of ourselves as predators. And indeed, humans in groups are the most dangerous predators ever to walk the face of the earth. But at an individual level, humans are not particularly good predators: we are small, weak, slow and poorly armed. Nor do individual humans need to be large-scale predators. We are omnivores, not true carnivores: we are capable of gaining sustenance from an extraordinarily large range of foods, including - but most definitely not limited to - meat. An individual human living off the land does not need to kill large prey: he or she can live quite satisfactorily off small kills and foraging. For much of human history, humans have not been predators, or at least not on a large scale. No, for much of human history, humans have been PREY. And it is our history as prey that gives us our fear driver - and, in my opinion, our tendency to herd together in groups.
Fear is an essential survival characteristic of animals that are naturally prey. It is fear that gives them sensitivity to danger, and fear that enables them to react quickly and appropriately to threats. The classic "fight or flight" response to fear is an automatic reaction to a perceived threat: it suspends ordinary thinking processes and replaces them with a conditioned response depending on the nature of the threat, namely to run away or counter-attack. There is also a third response, which is more common in humans than I think people realise: that is the "freeze" response, where the individual under threat keeps very still and silent, even stopping breathing, in the hope that the predator will not realise they are there. Given that humans are not fast runners compared to their natural predators, and are (in their natural state) poorly armed, it would not surprise me to find that "freeze" is the most common human response to threat.
All this of course harks back to a time before there was human society, before there were weapons, before humans became significant predators. It seems likely to me that human society formed in the first instance when people started banding together to defend themselves against predators: leaders of these protective groups would naturally be the biggest and strongest individuals, or possibly the most cunning individuals (after all, intelligence is a survival characteristic....). When weapons were invented, I suspect they were used in the first instance for defence, not for hunting. Hunting perhaps started when groups of armed humans realised they could seek out, attack and kill predators, thereby securing a territory, instead of waiting for the predator to attack. It is only a short step from groups of armed humans hunting down and killing predators to groups of armed humans hunting down and killing large herbivores for food. In both cases, the animal hunted would be much larger and more dangerous than anything an individual human could take on. Forming into groups both provided protection from predators and provided access to a wider range of food. To this day, we regard the primary purpose of a government as being to "secure the borders" - i.e. protect the group from predators. But these days the predators are not wolves or bears. They are something else entirely.
Once humans had established dominance as a species through their group hunting activity, their range of natural predators declined catastrophically. Even other animals that hunt in groups, such as wolves, would not take on a human group. Humans became (and still are) the most feared predators on earth. But in their subconscious minds, humans are still prey. They are still driven by fear, still looking out for predators. And when a species that is expecting there to be predators finds there are none, it invents them. Humans have created two sorts of "imaginary" predator: hungry gods, who have to be placated with animal or human sacrifice (just as herd animals will relax once a predator has made a kill), and - most distressingly of all - other groups of humans. We are now our own predators.
Down the centuries, we have acted out our fear of predation through religious ritual. Christianity proclaims that predation is now ended because of the sacrifice of one very high-status individual. The hungry god has supposedly been satisfied for all time by being fed someone who was more than human. But that doesn't stop churches demanding offerings of money with threats of divine retribution if the faithful don't pay up. So perhaps the god isn't entirely satisfied after all. Sacrifice comes in many forms! Many other religions also rely on various forms of sacrifice or offering to keep the hungry predator at bay. This strikes me as a fairly harmless sublimation of the fear response (I know many atheists would disagree with me, but please bear with me while I follow this through) and even helpful if it prevents regression to the more dangerous form of predator-invention. Sadly, though, too often religions have actually encouraged the formation of other predator-substitutes - namely, groups of humans that have invented DIFFERENT hungry gods. And these groups have fought each other to the death over their conflicting beliefs.
The process of predator-invention leads humans to "dehumanize" other humans. Dehumanization of people who look different, behave differently or simply occupy land that we want allows us to justify all manner of barbaric treatment of them. But underneath it all is fear - fear that the other group will take our land, our food, our jobs, our children, our lives. In other words, we see the group that we dehumanize as a predator - and as humans have done for millenia, we attack it before it attacks us. Much of the rhetoric from extreme racists today contains fear-attack language.
When humans attack other humans that they see as potential or actual predators (and let's be completely clear here - a thief, or a rapist, or a murderer IS a predator), they often do so brutally. Our fear leads us not only to want to tear the other apart, but to disfigure, humiliate and demean them - to break their power over us, not only by killing them but by destroying the power of their image in our minds. The desire to humiliate and demean can even override the desire to destroy: slavery initially came about as a means of demeaning vanquished foes and breaking their power, though it later acquired a much more commercial objective.
Today, we see fear everywhere. And consequently we are seeing "dehumanization" of particular groups. "The rich" (unspecified) are castigated for greed and threatened with asset-stripping. "Bankers" are universally reviled as criminals who should be locked up or even (as I saw in a recent tweet) beheaded. And at the other end of the scale, sick & disabled people are demonized in the tabloid press as "scroungers". This last is particularly unpleasant, because strident calls for impoverishment of sick & disabled people have been heard by government, and it is therefore busy dismantling social provision for some of the most vulnerable in our society. I do not like the way this is going. One of the strengths of human society has been its willingness to care for those who can't care for themselves: it is an important part of the "glue" that holds human groups together. Once we start dehumanizing those whom we formerly loved and cared for, we lose much of our cohesiveness - and, I would argue, our humanity. The breakup of the former Yugoslavia was characterised by dehumanization of people from different races and religions; the result was brutalisation and murder of people who had previously been neighbours and friends.
But more insidiously, many of the fear-driven beliefs and practices of earlier ages are returning, dressed up in modern clothes. The government appears to be willing to sacrifice ordinary people and businesses on the altar of austerity to placate the hungry gods of the bond markets. But are the bond markets really predators - or are they just scared people terrified of losing their wealth? And the financial sector is very evidently looking after itself at the expense of the rest of the economy - and a scared government is openly helping it to do this. It is perhaps less like a predator than a parasite. But it, too, is made up of people - people who are losing their jobs by the thousand and are terrified of a complete meltdown of their industry. There are even more scared people in government, bond markets and banking than there are in the real economy. And that is the most terrifying thing of all.
Frightened humans are very, very dangerous to other humans. As I noted above, fear overrides normal rational thinking, replacing it with automated responses from a much earlier age. Those responses now are likely to be highly inappropriate. Fear leads people to do stupid things. A government full of frightened people does not bode well for good management of the economy, let alone compassionate treatment of the poorer and weaker members of society. And a financial sector full of frightened people could cause serious damage to the economy: people with wealth desperately trying to protect it, rather than using it productively to benefit both themselves and society as a whole, which is how investment normally works. There is a deep divide and antagonism developing between the financial sector and the real economy: ordinary people see the financial sector as parasitic, and the financial sector increasingly sees ordinary people as thieves. This is incredibly dangerous.